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Walker, Thomas (1804–1886)

by W. Joy

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

Thomas Walker (1804-1886), merchant, banker and benefactor, was born on 3 May 1804 at Leith, Scotland, the elder son of James Thomas Walker, merchant, and his wife Anne, née Walker, of Perth. Thomas Walker came to Sydney and joined his maternal uncle in the firm of William Walker & Co., general merchants, about 1822. Later, with a cousin, he succeeded to the business. Thomas Walker was a magistrate in 1835.

In 1837 he rode overland with three friends to Melbourne; his journal was published anonymously in London in 1838 as A Month in the Bush of Australia. Foreseeing the growth of Melbourne, Walker at once bought four Bourke Street blocks for £135. Other prompt purchases brought his freehold in the Port Phillip District to 12,700 acres (5140 ha), which cost him less than £16,000. Walker's Sydney company also held eight squatting runs and had an interest in at least four others. Prudent sales laid the foundation of a large fortune. In June 1843 he was elected one of Port Phillip's representatives in the first part-elective New South Wales Legislative Council. In 1845 he signed a petition for Port Phillip to be made a separate colony, but soon gave up politics to devote more time to his growing financial interests. He was a director of the Australian Steam Navigation Co. and other companies and a minor shareholder in the Bank of Australia when it crashed; this may explain the ultra-conservative policy he adopted when he was a director in 1859 and president in 1869-86 of the Bank of New South Wales. As president, Walker vigorously opposed showy expenditure. He maintained that some shabby premises the bank occupied, instead of injuring business, won the confidence of thrifty people 'who abhor the display and gilt of modern fashions'. Almost to his death he stubbornly opposed any increase in the bank's capital, which still stood at £1,000,000 though deposits had increased from £5,500,000 to £14,500,000 under his presidency. He argued that increased capital would not necessarily bring a proportionate increase in business.

Walker strongly criticized Robertson's Land Acts of 1861. When they came up for review in 1878 and 1884 Walker wrote several pamphlets condemning the policy of free selection before survey. He claimed that the Acts did irreparable injury to the pastoral industry and the State, created an army of debtors, and disposed of the people's land at less than its true value. Though old he wrote trenchantly, using such terms as fraud, corruption, blackmail, evasion, deceit, perjury and waste, and not hesitating to impute dishonesty to some politicians and Lands Department agents. In place of free selection Walker advocated creation of special agricultural reserves where genuine farmers could obtain land without taking the best from the runs and causing antagonism between squatters and selectors.

Walker was regarded by some as tight-fisted. He was, however, conscientious and benevolent, made many personal benefactions, and for a time employed an agent privately to seek out and relieve people in distress; before visiting Europe in 1882 he left £10,000 to be distributed among Sydney charities. On 25 July 1860 at Holy Trinity Church, Sydney, he had married with Anglican rites Jane, the daughter of Thomas Hart, merchant, of Woolloomooloo. She died in December 1870, leaving one child, Eadith Campbell Walker.

Thomas Walker died on 2 September 1886 at Yaralla, Concord, Sydney. His will set aside £100,000 for the building and support of what is now the Thomas Walker Convalescent Hospital at Concord; in seventy years more than 50,000 patients passed through it. The rest of his fortune he left in trust to his daughter. When she died unmarried in October 1937 the fund, then about £800,000, was divided under Thomas Walker's will into two parts, one to go to next-of-kin, the remainder to charitable trusts. None of Walker's brothers and sisters had left children, and an appeal to next-of-kin brought more than six hundred claimants, from Scotland, England, South Africa, the United States, France, Norway and most Australian States. Finally thirty-three claimants established a fifth-degree blood relationship and each received about £12,000. Of £380,000 which finally went to charity, £100,000 was set aside to found the Dame Eadith Walker Convalescent Hospital for Men at Concord and income from the remainder went to support the Dame Eadith hospital, the Thomas Walker hospital and the Yaralla cottages built by Dame Eadith for elderly people in need. A portrait of Thomas Walker is in the head office of the Bank of New South Wales.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 17, 23, 24
  • E. J. Brady, Australia Unlimited (Melb, 1918)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 3 Sept 1886, 9, 15, 20 Oct, 26 Nov 1937, 30 Nov 1938
  • Australasian, 8 Dec 1934
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 24 June 1939.

Citation details

W. Joy, 'Walker, Thomas (1804–1886)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/walker-thomas-1101/text3929, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 25 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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